There are so many traditions and embellishments that over the years we have added to the Biblical account. Many are lovely, they can help us imagine the scene, some draw us in and bring it to life. Some however can give us the wrong idea about the story altogether. It’s really useful for us to have clarity about what’s there in the Bible, what we know and to separate out the add ons – not necessarily to ‘banish’ them but to know them as extras.
My girls need that clarity. It’s hard to have to unlearn something later and have to build trust again with the story itself, and the people who told it. Far better to be clear from the beginning (great with hindsight I know!).
Little Donkey is unfortunately never mentioned in the Biblical accounts. It’s true that we know with some certainty that having a donkey with you when you traveled at that time, in that place was common – if you were well off enough to have one. But the donkey would probably have been used to carry things not people routinely. So yes, it is lovely to imagine Mary having the assistance of a donkey for the really long journey on foot to Bethlehem whilst heavily pregnant – but we are having an educated guess. We don’t know for certain they had one with them.
Three Kings are a neatening up of the story. The Bible describes simply ‘some wise men from the East’. We have made the logical step of assuming they had wealth and social standing to be able to abandon what they were doing and set out on the long journey of discovery, and because of the expensive presents they brought. We’ve also neatly assumed three when writing carols and nativity plays – easy, one for each present. But it could have been a group all coming together to bring the three presents. They could have had an entourage of servants with them, there could have just been two out on an adventure together… we’re simply not told.
Stable round the back of the Inn Now this is a tricky one. Almost all Christmas cards show the nativity scene in a wooden stable that we in the west would recognize. It’s usually either at a small distance from the town or like a lean to against the Inn. Also I think we have translated the word ‘Inn’ looking at the story through western eyes, imagining perhaps an old fashioned public house taking in weary travelers with rooms for hire upstairs – and it’s full to bursting. In fact that kind of Inn was not the norm in the Middle East at that time. The culture had at it’s heart the expectation of hospitality. Every home would be ready to give it. Those who could afford to had a guest room set slightly apart from the busyness of their family life, maybe up on the flat roof, or perhaps just separated by a wall from the family living area which would most likely have been one room, bringing the precious animals in for the night to give warmth and security, and all sleeping within that family space with the animals. So it was probably not a wooden stable building that Mary and Joseph were offered for the night, but the chance to squeeze into someone’s family space – animals and all because all the guest rooms were already full. Not secluded, not quiet, not private as we perhaps have got used to picturing it. But yes, he was placed in the manger and yes he was born in with the animals that belonged to that household and I expect they were very glad of the warmth.
Shepherds and wise men visit. We are used to telling the story all in one go – especially for children, and so we have grown accustomed to imagining the shepherds and wise men all arriving on that first night. But actually the Bible says that the wise men visited Jesus in Bethlehem much later, perhaps months later. We know Jesus was still young because Herod (otherwise known as Herod the Great – there were a few Herod’s in Biblical times) ordered all babies 2 years and under to be killed in the hope that he would remove this ‘new king’ the wise men had come to see but he was described as a ‘child with his mother’ when they saw him, not as a baby lying in a manger.
Another thing that can so easily get muddled is stars and angels – angels came to the shepherds and the star led the wise men.
‘No crying he makes’ – no chance!!! How worrying would that have been for Mary. Babies need to cry, to take in that first big breath and to get fed when they are hungry and cleaned when they are dirty. It’s true Jesus was perfect, the Bible tells us he was without sin. But babies crying is not sinful it is necessary (Don’t ask me why we say ‘oh they were such a good baby’ when we mean they didn’t cry too much more than was convenient!! Maybe it harks back to the Victorian adage ‘children should be seen and not heard’). Yes, Mary would have been relieved to hear baby Jesus crying. And just to clarify he would have been a beautifully ordinary Bethlehem baby; olive skin, deep brown eyes, really dark hair – just like his Jewish, Middle Eastern Mum & Dad – he was really, truly human.